Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Community, Culture and Youth and Second Minister for Law at the PRIME Finance Asia Conference
8 Dec 2020 Posted in [Speeches]
- Good afternoon or good evening, depending on where you are.
- Thank you to PRIME Finance for inviting me to speak at your first Asia Conference.
- Today is the second session in a series of three sessions, on “Evolving Business Challenges”. This session focuses on issues relating to the use of technology in financial transactions, including fintech, digital currencies, and smart contracts.
- I will share some thoughts on Singapore’s approach and plans to support the financial sector in their development and use of technology.
a. I will focus on several key areas for Singapore: the legal services industry, dispute resolution and intellectual property (IP) services.
b. We believe that the key to meeting evolving business challenges is really to have a robust, strong ecosystem to drive legal services.
Singapore as a Global Financial Centre
- Singapore is today ranked 4th among the global financial centres and 8th in FinTech1.
- As with most other achievements, this did not happen by chance2.
a. Singapore is too small, for progress to just happen by itself.
b. We are unlike the larger economies, where there is a natural market – where free market forces will promote organic growth.
c. Everything is really a result of design, with the government planting the initial seeds and catalysing the growth.
- For a sector, this would mean anything from:
a. developing the policies, framework, rules and regulations, to
b. anchoring key players in Singapore,
c. creating a conducive environment for activities to take place, and
d. building capabilities to support the whole infrastructure and ecosystem.
- The whole ecosystem concept is critical for us. We need all the main and supporting players to be available to provide the necessary goods and services, and support one another.
- Legal services, dispute resolution and IP sectors are all supporting services that complement Singapore’s key sectors, including the financial sector, and we develop these sectors with that objective in mind.
- As technology becomes more prevalent in the financial sector, we also seek to ensure that our legal, dispute resolution and IP service providers keep pace with these developments, so that we can support the growth of our financial sector. Otherwise, not only will our financial sector lose its competitive edge, our services sectors will also fail.
- Let me first touch on legal services.
- Singapore has one of the most liberalised legal services regimes in this part of the world. We chose to take a calibrated approach in opening up the practice of law, to maintain the top quality of our legal services.
- We introduced the Qualifying Foreign Law Practice (QFLP) scheme in 2008, to allow foreign law practices to hire Singapore-qualified lawyers to advise on Singapore law in permitted areas. This was to address the shortage of lawyers who could advise on complex financial transactions then. We also had Joint Law Ventures and Formal Law Alliances for foreign law practices to formally collaborate with our Singapore law practices, to offer parties who need both Singapore and foreign law advice. Today, we have many leading banking and finance lawyers with deep expertise in their fields here – both local and foreign – advising the largest global corporations and networks.
- The question now is: with technology coming into the fold,
a. Do we have sufficient, quality lawyers who understand technology well enough to advise clients on the legal risks and implications, including liabilities, cybersecurity, data protection, compliance, and of course, many more.
b. If not, how do we address this gap?
c. Can Singapore continue to attract and retain foreign manpower here, as the world becomes increasingly globalised and competition for talent becomes stiffer, and as Singapore tightens its rules on foreign workers?
d. And finally, how do we ensure that our legal sector does not fall behind other sectors, in terms of technology?
- Currently, many lawyers who advise on new fintech innovations like cryptocurrency, blockchain, initial coin offerings, electronic payments and the like, are lawyers in adjacent fields who have been advising on financial services licensing, regulation, compliance and transactions. Some of them ventured into the new fields, because their existing clients turned to them for assistance. Others were more entrepreneurial and saw a less crowded space there. We also involved some of them in shaping the policies in the fintech space, so that they could become the subject matter experts in those areas.
- Going forward, there will be a far more concerted effort by the government to equip lawyers with the relevant digital skills and understanding. We will start them from young, in their undergraduate days, ensuring a strong future ready curriculum. Students, in turn, can expect more core modules, cross-disciplinary curriculum, hackathons, and research in technology areas in our law schools. We also encourage our people to get exposure from internships overseas, and gain regional experience. To this end, we have built digital economy agreements for our professional services firms to access overseas markets, and strengthen their workers’ competencies. The aim is to imbue our lawyers with a mindset to embrace technology and seize opportunities, and enhance capabilities within their own profession.
- Even as we develop our local talent, we will continue to work to attract the top legal talent to Singapore to complement our local practitioners. We can only really be a leading jurisdiction, with a strong, vibrant professional services sector, if the best and the brightest work for us, with us here in Singapore.
- Some may have heard about the changes that Singapore is making to our work pass requirements, and wondered if we are closing our doors to foreigners. I can assure you that we are not. Singapore thrives on being an open economy. The need to stay connected to the world is perhaps even more important than ever in times of crisis.
- The objective is to build a legal sector of international standards, which can better meet the needs of businesses both here in Singapore, as well as from Singapore.
- One initiative that we have been working on in the past year or so, is to develop a legal tech platform for the Singapore legal industry.
- The idea is to aggregate the different legal tech solutions onto a single platform, so that lawyers can better access them without having to navigate the different software, websites, apps, and fundamentally, to really focus on the legal matters and the needs of their clients.
- The platform will have the different tools that lawyers need – practice management systems, document management systems, discovery tools, legal drafting tools, and so on.
- It will also eventually communicate and interface with existing agencies, that lawyers typically and regularly deal with.
a. For example, Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (ACRA), insolvency office, credit rating bureaus, and so on.
- Of course, given the sensitive client information, we also have to ensure security. The data has to be protected, and meet the relevant industry and also regulatory standards.
- We are indeed very excited about this new initiative, and will make some further announcements on this soon.
- Next, let me move on to dispute resolution, which is also a service offered by PRIME Finance –
a. one that is crucial because differences are bound to happen in any business transaction;
b. and more importantly resolving these disputes fairly, efficiently and effectively is a key component of our value proposition.
- As with legal services, the question is whether we have the expertise to deal with disputes involving technology, particularly in the financial sector.
- Singapore has developed a full suite of international commercial dispute resolution services, including arbitration, mediation and litigation, and has achieved some results. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC), in its launch of its 5th overseas office in the US just last week, announced a record caseload of 1,005 cases as of October this year. While the caseload statistics included two sets of related cases, it is nevertheless an impressive achievement.
- SIAC has administered a broad range of cases, including those which involve emerging fields like AI, blockchain, bitcoin, cryptocurrency, which have increased over the past year, and we expect that to increase further. SIAC is able to handle these, because of the strength of their panel – not just experts in dispute resolution, but also in specialist areas, even though there are no specialist panels per se.
- If you add the other international dispute resolution institutions in Singapore, including PCA, ICC, AAA, WIPO, which all have offices in our flagship integrated dispute resolution complex, Maxwell Chambers, businesses have access to even more service offerings and expertise. I would welcome PRIME Finance to set up a Registry here too at Maxwell Chambers!
- Lastly, I will touch on IP –
a. how we intend to develop IP capability, and
b. how we hope to help businesses access overseas markets.
- IP is integral in today’s economy. With financial institutions increasingly developing and using technology, IP becomes all the more important. Financial institutions need to be able to formulate a coherent strategy to protect and commercialise their IP and intangible assets.
- One key capability required is having a good understanding of how to value their own IP or intangible assets, as well as those of their clients. We are therefore looking at how to develop new capabilities in IP valuation. For example, by introducing new valuation modules to strengthen the professional competencies of intangible asset valuers in Singapore.
- In addition, the ability to manage IP is fundamental to maintaining a competitive edge. Singapore will continue to support talent and skills development through IP education and training. These include the Masters in IP and Innovation Management and the Specialist Certificate in Intangible Asset Management programmes, and the Masters in IP and Innovation Management. We will also champion IP literacy as a horizontal skillset, and equip financial service professionals with basic IP know-how. This is to cultivate better IP awareness and management practices in the sector.
Speed to market
- The other area that we are looking into is how to make it easier for fast-moving sectors like the financial sector and fintech sector, to exploit current trends by shortening the period from production conceptualisation to launch, not just in Singapore but also in the region. This will better support them in their overseas expansion plans, especially since many businesses use Singapore as a base from which to serve the region.
- To do this, the SG IP Fast programme was launched earlier this year, to fast track the registration of patents, trade marks and registered designs in Singapore. Protection can be secured in as short as 6 months for patents, 3 months for trade marks and 1 month for registered designs.
- Businesses can also tap on our extensive IP networks, with over 70 countries to accelerate patent protection in overseas markets. For example, Singapore is part of the Global Patent Prosecution Highway network, which enables businesses to accelerate their patent applications in 26 countries. Singapore is also party to the ASEAN Patent Examination Cooperation programme, which speeds up patent applications among participating ASEAN member states.
Singapore IP Strategy 2030
- Moving forward, as we look to strengthen our position as a global IP hub, I am happy to share that the Government is working closely with our stakeholders and partners on the Singapore IP Strategy 2030.
- We will be sharing more details of this at a later date.
- At the end of the day, Singapore’s core strengths lie in being nimble and adaptable, moving fast and striking while the iron is hot when it comes to opportunities and evolving circumstances. When there are new developments, we move very fast to update the legislation and policies to support the changes, and ensure that our companies and people are able to take advantage. For example, we put together the text of the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act in 9 days earlier this year, helping to protect businesses and livelihoods. There are few countries in the world who can do this.
- As I shared earlier, we always keep a close eye on evolving global trends and developments, and where necessary, take concrete steps to keep ourselves updated and relevant. We continue to identify challenges and opportunities, and work with our partners to do well in the good times, and ride out the bad. So regardless of what disruptions and challenges we see in the financial sector, I am quite certain that Singapore will be able to keep pace to support the sector.
- I hope this will set some context for your panel discussion later, and I hope that you will have a riveting, engaging, evolving, innovative, and certainly enriching discussion. Thank you very much for inviting me once again, and I look forward to meeting all of you at some stage, in due course.
- Thank you.
1. Global Financial Centres Index. ↩
2. PM said in April 2018: “At the national level, design is…a core element of our nation-building. Singapore is a nation by design. Nothing we have today is natural, or happened by itself. Somebody thought about it, made it happen. Not our economic growth, not our international standing, not our multiracial harmony, not even our nationhood. Nothing was by chance.” ↩
Last updated on 8 Dec 2020